13 Jan

Material Guide: How Sustainable and Ethical Is Organic Cotton?

Organic cotton is the go-to material for sustainable brands, but is it that much better for people and the planet than conventional cotton?

Conventional cotton has a dark side

Cotton. You sleep on it at night, you dry yourself with it after a shower, and you’re probably even wearing it right now.

Despite being so common and so useful (it represents nearly half the fibre used in the textile industry), cotton has a dark side. The story of how cotton is grown, harvested, and produced has some nasty truths that impact the planet and its inhabitants.

Cotton is sometimes referred to as “white gold” because of how lucrative it is in some low- and middle-income (LMIC) nations like Uzbekistan. But how can we make sure the cotton we wear and use has cared for the earth, waterways, and the people who helped make our garments? Is organic cotton a sustainable alternative, or is it a product of greenwashing?

The impacts of cotton production

The planet

Water

Cotton has often been dubbed “the thirsty crop”, with sources claiming for years that it took 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt—but it’s not that simple. Like most crops, cotton’s relationship with water is complex. While blue water (irrigation) consumption of cotton lint sits at a global average of about 1,900 litres per kilogram, that is only one factor and doesn’t draw any meaningful conclusion about the “thirstiness” of cotton. That said, cotton is grown in many water-stressed regions and can contribute to water management challenges, but with the right support for farmers, it can be done more sustainably.

Pesticides

The production of cotton requires large quantities of insecticides. Pesticides can infect local waterways, destroying the environment and harming animals. Pests continually build a resistance to the chemicals used, so new formulas are continuously developed, resulting in greater pesticide use and spiralling costs for farmers.

The people

Pesticide poisoning isn’t limited to the environment. Food and water supplies can be easily contaminated from runoff, and it’s the local communities—sometimes already facing hardship—that suffer through disease, illness, and even congenital disabilities.

In many LMIC countries, cotton is hand-picked. In the past, countries like Uzbekistan often had children do this backbreaking work, taking them away from pursuing a life-changing education while running the risk of injury and illness. A recent ILO report outlines the drastic decrease of child and forced labour in Uzbekistan specifically from 2020, though there are still some concerns for working conditions.

Want to know more about cotton? Have a look at our “How Sustainable Is Cotton?” material guide

Is organic cotton a more ethical and sustainable solution?

To put it simply, organic cotton is a more sustainable solution. It is grown without pesticides from seeds that have not been genetically modified.

Organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and the use of fewer resources. Chemical-free agricultural land even stays fertile much longer than land hampered by the constant use of pesticides, so organic cotton farmers generally have a longer cotton commodity lifespan than otherwise.

The benefits are clear: using fewer pesticides means that workers’ health improves dramatically, communities can live in relative health with access to clean water and food supplies, and the land has a longer lifespan because chemicals are not damaging it. It also means the clothes we wear are safer for us since they don’t contain the myriad of chemicals often found in conventional cotton garments.

On the social front, organisations such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) have been working to ensure organic textiles also enhance (or at least do not harm) people’s lives. GOTS covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading, and distributing of textiles, ensuring that environmental and social standards—such as safe and hygienic working conditions, no workplace discrimination, and fair pay rates—are respected. Also, look out for Fair Trade certification to ensure workers are treated well along the supply chain.

By seeking out organic cotton alternatives to everyday products, you can quickly act ethically and sustainably by encouraging cotton grown without pesticides and reducing harm for the planet and people.

A couple of things to note

We know that consumers are increasingly looking for better products for themselves and the environment. The search for “organic” products began with food and has since reached the fashion industry. More and more brands are starting to offer organic options to their consumers (like Primark, which launched its first organic denim jeans in 2019).

However, organic cotton production is not perfect. Because organic cotton yields fewer fibres than GMO cotton, it requires more plants and more land to produce.

Plus, before the organic fibre is turned into your favourite t-shirt, it requires lots of processing and dyeing, which can also be very chemically intensive. Unless the garment is GOTS certified, it can be hard to tell if it has been coloured using safe or low impact colourants.

Nowadays, using the word “organic” can be incredibly persuasive. Beware of greenwashing and fashion brands claiming to do better when they are still not addressing other vital issues.

But don’t get us wrong: if sustainably and ethically produced, organic cotton is a fantastic alternative to conventional cotton.

Where to buy organic cotton

As always, if you want to have a more positive impact on people and the planet, we recommend buying less, choosing well, and making it last. If you are in the market for new clothes, we’ve also listed a few of our favourite organic brands below:

 

Beaumont Organic

Rated: Good

Beaumont Organic is a UK-based slow fashion brand that blends simple style with ethical production practices. Founded by Hannah Beaumont-Laurencia, the brand also has its own charitable foundation which supports people in Fiji. Find the range in sizes XS-L.

See the rating.

Shop Beaumont Organic.

Miakoda

Rated: Great
two women wearing Miakoda sustainable yoga clothes

If you’re all about that organic plant-based lifestyle, then you’ll most certainly vibe with Miakoda and its organic, ultra-cosy active and loungewear. Supportive of different shapes and sizes from XS-4XL, its pieces include stripped-back colours and designs that are all about comfort. Everything is manufactured in an ethical factory in NYC, and all packing materials are eco-friendly.

See the rating.

Shop Miakoda.

Shop Miakoda @ Wearwell.

L’ENVERS

Rated: Good

L’ENVERS’ mission is to design fewer pieces made in a better way. Specialised in knitwear, this Spanish brand believes in mindful, careful and slow consumption, offering timeless editions guided by conscious, sustainable materials, including organic cotton. You can find their knitted collection in sizes XS to XL, or even customise your own piece.

See the rating.

Shop L’Envers @ thegreenlabels.

Shop L’Envers.

Fair Indigo

Rated: Great

Fair Indigo is a US-based ethical brand that creates sustainable clothing not only for the planet, but for the human beings involved in your clothing's journey from the cotton farms to your closet. Instead of racing to the bottom, it is aspiring to the top. Its premium-quality organic clothing collections are available in sizes XS to 2XL.

See the rating.

Shop Fair Indigo.

Colorful Standard

Rated: Good

Colorful Standard is a Danish clothing brand that makes organic fashion essentials for men and women. The brand doesn't care much for seasons or trends, instead, it creates timeless and long-lasting products to avoid the downward spiral that is over-consumption. Find most items in sizes XS to 2 XL.

See the rating.

Shop Colorful Standard.

Pop My Way

Rated: Great

Pop My Way is a GOTS certified brand that features mix and match baby essentials that are designed to "pop" onto the garment. This UK brand's modular and versatile designs take the stress out of getting your little one dressed with mix and match elements you can switch in and out for ease or occasion.

See the rating.

Shop Pop My Way.

KENT

Rated: Good

KENT is a US-based brand that creates timeless organic underwear for women, ensuring a quality fit and feel no matter what. It produces the first verified compostable underwear, made from organic cotton and designed to return to nature in 90 days when composted or planted, feeding the soil and growing new plants (or future pants). Find most pants in sizes XS to 2XL.

See the rating.

Shop KENT.

Nudie Jeans

Rated: Good

Nudie Jeans designs 100% organic cotton denim and is transparent about its production. The brand also offers a free repair service, resells second hand products, and even recycles worn out items! Find the perfect fit with the Virtual Size Guide on the product pages.

See the rating.

Shop Nudie Jeans.

Shop Nudie Jeans @ Farfetch.

Shop Nudie Jeans Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

The Very Good Bra

Rated: Great

The Very Good Bra is an Australian womenswear label that houses lingerie and other basics for the modern woman. Find most bras in cup sizes A to E, and clothes in S-L.

See the rating.

Shop The Very Good Bra.

CARIUMA

Rated: Good
yellow sustainable skate shoes by Cariuma brand

CARIUMA is a sustainable Brazilian sneaker brand that wants you to feel super comfortable while providing effortless style in organic canvas, leather, and suede styles. Find CARIUMA's shoes in US sizes 5-13.

See the rating.

Shop CARIUMA.

Conscious Step

Rated: Good

Conscious Step creates premium fair trade, organic, vegan socks and clothes which support great charities. The US brand is committed to lasting social and environmental change and every step it takes in its production process supports farms and factories with fair wages, safe facilities, and sustainable materials. The socks come in S-L sizes, and the clothes in 2XS-2XL.

See the rating.

Shop Conscious Step.

LANIUS

Rated: Good
person laughing dressed in button-up dark denim shirt and blue cardigan by Lanius

“Love Fashion, Think Organic, Be Responsible” are the maxims of LANIUS. The German brand uses eco-friendly materials, like GOTS certified cotton. All LANIUS facilities are SA8000 certified and it is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation. LANIUS' clothes are available in EU sizes 34-44.

See the rating.

Shop LANIUS.

Shop LANIUS @ Curate.

Sorella Organics

Rated: Great

Sorella’s certified organic sleepwear range includes tops, pants, wraps, nighties, as well as maternity wear. The label’s founder Anna McGregor has a background in international human rights work. This is obvious with her use of Fairtrade certified cotton, and it ensures strict social standards are met in production and trading. Best of all, purchasing the clothing won’t make you cry over your bank balance. Find the range in sizes S-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Sorella Organics.

Organic Basics

Rated: Great
people wearing organic basics basics

Organic Basics offers high-quality sustainable fashion basics for men and women in organic materials. It also recently launched its first sustainable denim collection! The Denmark-based brand puts sustainable thinking at the centre of everything—it only chooses fabrics that care for our environment, and only ever partners with factories that care about their impact. Organic Basics clothes are available in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Organic Basics @ Rêve en Vert.

Shop Organic Basics.

Bhumi

Rated: Great
A woman in a yoga pose wears a dark grey tank.

Australian brand Bhumi makes 100% Fairtrade, organic, and vegan basics and bedding. The brand believes in sustainable luxury, paving the way for a new era in the textile industry by choosing fairtrade organic fabrics for all of its products. Find the clothes in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Bhumi.

Kowtow

Rated: Good

Kowtow uses organic, fair trade cotton and non-toxic dyes to produce its clothes. It designs elegant, timeless womenswear, and also has a range of ceramics. Find the clothes in sizes XS-L.

See the rating.

Shop Kowtow.

Vege Threads

Rated: Great

Vege Threads is ECA certified and makes all of its clothing in Australia. Its range is sustainable and eco-friendly, and includes men's and women's basics, as well as women's activewear and swimwear. Find the range in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Vege Threads.

Birdsong

Rated: Good

Birdsong is a boutique label producing gorgeous womenswear. Its clothes are handmade in London by knitters and seamstresses earning above the London living wage. The business is built on a philosophy of fairness and authenticity, promising customers “no sweatshop, no photoshop”. Birdsong's products are inclusively sized from 2XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop Birdsong.

Shop Birdsong @ SlowCo.

tentree

Rated: Good

Canadian brand tentree believes big change starts small. Small as in bringing your reusable bag to the grocery store, making fewer, more thoughtful purchases, and choosing to purchase sustainably when you do. The brand plants ten trees for every item purchased to help regenerate ecosystems and provide planting jobs in communities around the world, and has already planted over 65 million trees.

All tentree’s products are created with an Earth-First approach, meaning they're made in fair, safe working conditions, and constructed using only sustainably sourced and recycled materials. tentree’s super comfy fabrics and easy wardrobe staples are typically available from XS to XL.

See the rating.

Shop tentree.

La Queue du Chat

Rated: Great
kid wearing khaki la queue du chat tshirt

At La Queue du Chat, the entire production line from cotton blossom to weaving to garment-making is GOTS certified in order to guarantee healthy products without chemicals or toxic residues.

See the rating.

Shop La Queue du Chat Pre-Owned @ Retykle.

Shop La Queue du Chat.

Little Emperor

Rated: Great
girl wearing pink little emperor t-shirt

Little Emperor creates unique, functional, and hard-wearing clothing for children. Its affordable clothing is made from environmentally friendly organic cotton, with every garment designed in Sydney, Australia and made in a Sedex-approved factory ensuring living wages and safe working conditions for workers. From the materials and packaging, right down to the energy supplier and banking, Little Emperor is dedicated to environmentally friendly practice. Named in honour of the adorable Emperor Penguin, Little Emperor is a member of 1% for the Planet, meaning 1% of sales are donated to environmental non-profits, helping protect the penguins’ home.

See the rating.

Shop Little Emperor.

Pico

Rated: Great

Pico designs beautifully soft organic and fair-trade cotton underwear for both men and women. The British brand is fully vegan and all its products are Fairtrade International - Small Producers Organisations certified.

See the rating.

Shop Pico @ Reve en Vert.

Shop Pico.

Learn more about sustainable and ethical materials

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our directory to search thousands of rated brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

Ethical brand ratings. There’s an app for that.

Wear the change you want to see. Download our app to discover ethical brands and see how your favourites measure up.